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Published: Tuesday, 10/6/2009

Obama lowers his shield

WHEN he was a candidate, Barack Obama promised to be a different kind of president on an issue that is critical to gathering the news and informing the public - protecting confidential sources.

But last week, according to the New York Times, the Obama Administration signaled to lawmakers that it will oppose any "media shield" law that protects reporters from the threat of jail for refusing to reveal sources that leak information on national security matters.

The administration then suggested revisions of a bill that would vitiate its effectiveness, according to co-sponsors Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania and Sen. Charles Schumer of New York.

The bill drafted by the two Democrats would require federal prosecutors to exhaust all other methods before subpoenaing a reporter to find the source of a leak. It contains safeguards to balance investigators' interests with "the public interest in gathering news and maintaining the free flow of information."

But under the White House proposal, the conditions would not apply to leaks on information that could cause "significant" harm to national security, and judges would be instructed to be deferential to the administration's argument about the leak's security impact. The reporter could be compelled to give up the source or face jail.

This is a disappointing turn in philosophy for Mr. Obama. As an Illinois senator, he co-sponsored an earlier version of the shield bill, but now that he's in the White House, his view is more attuned to that of the Bush administration.

Those who expected more press protection from Mr. Obama and greater freedom to report on the workings of government have reason to be outraged. Mr. Specter called the White House's plan "totally unacceptable," while Mr. Schumer termed it "an unexpected and significant setback."

Even so, Congress should go forward with its media shield bill as originally conceived. If Mr. Obama wants to renege on his earlier support, then let him veto the measure. Then he can explain why he wants to muzzle the press.

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